Some good reasons why History really matters

We’d like to thank Rachel Best and Leanne Smith, current and former students of History at the University of Sunderland, for contributing to this blog post, and Dr Sarah Hellawell (Sunderland) for encouraging them to share their experiences with History UK.


Unfortunately, several History programmes have closed down, including the announcement of the end of history-teaching at the University of Sunderland earlier this year, with recent stories about cuts to Humanities departments suggesting that more bad news may be just around the corner. However, as History UK’s response to the closure at Sunderland makes clear, History degrees – and humanities subjects more generally – remain highly relevant and valuable subjects for a wide variety of reasons, including:

  • The best potential employees in a modern dynamic economy are not, as all good employers know, those taught to perform a narrow and specific task, but confident, well-rounded, flexible, and, above all, thinking individuals.

  • History students gain a range of skills in information gathering, analysis, and communication that are relevant to almost all employment areas.

  • The best guarantor of employability, as a joint CBI-UUK report from 2009 argued, lies in developing precisely the ‘soft’, transferable, and person-centred skills which history degrees excel in providing.

  • As well as supplying a pipeline of skilled, creative, and dynamic graduates, history contributes directly to the economy through the heritage sector. A recent report from Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum showed that for England alone Heritage provides a total GVA (gross value added) of £31 billion and over 464,000 jobs.

The contemporary significance of History has been underlined by the Black Lives Matter movement, while simultaneously being called into question by recent government rhetoric around ‘low value’ degrees, not to mention the outright hostility of some figures in the public eye to academic historians.

It is notable, however, that while professing to speak for students, many critiques of History (and Humanities more generally) at university don’t let students speak for themselves. There is no reference, for instance, to the discipline’s consistently high student satisfaction ratings. The student voice (or voices) purportedly so important to policymakers, is rarely heard.

We were therefore delighted to receive the following contributions from two students of History from the University of Sunderland, which we think give a real flavour of why History matters for them.

 

Rachel Best, 2nd Year History student, University of Sunderland

The years before I considered doing any sort of degree were years languishing in, what the present government calls, unskilled work.  It is far from that, however, but, to some, it may become unfulfilling when these types of jobs become the only option in which to earn a living.  I decided, then, to apply for the Politics and History BA Honours course at Sunderland University, as the choices of Politics and History graduates are many when the time comes to explore career options.  Additionally, this course allowed me to have an eye on my future, while exploring my passions in an academic setting. It revealed so many more avenues of interest than my mere hobby status in these subjects allowed.

At the beginning, I believed my personal focus would err towards a political weighting of the degree.  But, as my studies have progressed, I have found the History modules I chose to be of greater interest and inspiration.  I have met many people from the long eighteenth century I had never encountered before, who deepened my understanding of the “whys” and “hows” that frame our engagement with society and the state we live in now.  I have met people from Africa, the Americas, Russia, France, Germany, the former Dutch Republic and, of course, the United Kingdom, who have all contributed to, through critique or celebration (but mostly critique!), the social and political organization we see all around us today. It reveals how we are all connected.

Studying this course has opened an inner world that I barely knew existed before I embarked upon my advanced studies. I can write. I never knew that before. I can present evidence and analysis in support of concepts that I was hitherto ignorant of only two years before. I want to be better at this. I have tapped into the rich reserves of academic thought that present humanity at its most complex.  I want to know more! This course has given me a purpose. By engaging with the past, History has given me a future.

 

Leanne Smith, PhD Candidate at Newcastle University, BA and MA History graduate from the University of Sunderland

I had always regretted not going to university when I left school so after the birth of my son, I took the opportunity to fulfil this life-long dream. What I would study was never in question. Whether it was visiting museums, art galleries, watching a documentary (anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy a documentary), or simply reading a book I have always been fascinated by history. I completed an Access to Higher Education course at college. After attending an open day and an amazing taster session I applied to the University of Sunderland. The course was exactly what I was looking for and as my son was still young, so it was important that I stay local.

As a mature student, I was nervous about attending university. I had never written an essay and had taken my last exam in 1996 but I graduated with a first- class honours degree in 2017. I immediately enrolled onto the new Master’s degree course in Historical Research, also at the University of Sunderland, to pursue my interest in intellectual history. It was during my MA that I started to think about the possibility of applying for a PhD. Because of my circumstances as a single parent I knew that without funding it would be too much of a challenge. With the support of the lecturers at both Sunderland and Newcastle University I put forward and application for funding through the Northern Bridge Consortium. I am now over half-way through the first year as a fully-funded PhD student at Newcastle University.

Studying history has not only expanded my knowledge of the past and allowed me to develop a long list of ‘transferable’ skills but more importantly it has also shown me why knowing our past is important. I had previously, and rather naively, accepted without question what had been written. The history I had known was stories of progress and glorification. Studying history has taught me to challenge the existing historical narratives. To question what I have read and heard. To challenge my own preconceived ideas. For me personally it has provided me with a new way of not only looking at the past but also seeing and understanding the world around me.

Panic Not: The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook

In 2020 History departments suddenly had to think seriously about how to move teaching online. For most, this ‘emergency phase’ was a daunting and challenging time, but for some historians, there was also a sense of cautious excitement.  As a subject-area, we have tended to prefer physical settings and interactions over digital ones. The Canadian historian Dr Sean Kheraj has observed that COVID is making us use tools that are unfamiliar to many historians and forcing us to upskill to work within a digital landscape that we have often overlooked.

At History UK, we recognised a need to support the history community during this time of transition. From late May 2020, a group of Steering Committee members have been meeting to discuss how to do this. Our Pandemic Pedagogy subgroup have run a series of Twitter chats to see what colleagues have learned from the new role online learning has come to play. As part of this process, we have written a series of short posts (on learning design, lectures, contact hours, assessment, accessibility, and community building in the classroom and in wider cohorts) and gathered feedback from the wider community.

As a result of this work, we have produced a short guide to help colleagues in thinking about what it means to move our teaching online – The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook. You can access it at the The Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook webpage, where you can also download the full Handbook and each of the individual sections in PDF format. 

We framed the Handbook around a number of questions:  

  1. What happens to our students’ experience of learning, in and out of the ‘classroom’?
  2. What happens to accessibility?
  3. What happens to community?
  4. What happens to seminars?
  5. What happens to primary source work?
  6. What happens to lectures?
  7. What happens to assessment and feedback?

This is not the end of our commitment to creating a space for collaborative conversations around pedagogy in the time of a global pandemic. We invite colleagues to write short posts that we can share on our blog in order to keep the conversation going. Topics could include (but are not limited to): practical case studies of teaching online, think-pieces that address any aspect of the move online such as equity, diversity and inclusivity, community building, teaching and learning. technology, digital humanities. Please share your insights into any of these areas, especially if you have practical examples of approaches to teaching History online, and encourage colleagues to do the same. 

We are also interested in receiving feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook itself. Please do let us know if it has informed your practice using the comments section on the Handbook webpage and/or @history_uk.  

We would like to thank everyone involved in putting together this guide. The project was led by Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway/ @kateantiquity); steering committee contributors were Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores/ @luciejones83), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton/ @y_pringle), Manuela Williams (Strathclyde/ @ManuelaAWill), and Jamie Wood (Lincoln/ @MakDigHist). We were joined by Louise Crechan (Glasgow/ @LouiseCreechan) and Aimee Merrydew (Keele/ @a_merrydew) as Pandemic Pedagogy Fellows.

History UK Pandemic Pedagogy fellowship

At the beginning of June, History UK launched a ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ initiative to help support
historians move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for a remote
and socially-distanced campus in the Autumn. The aim is to produce short, user-friendly, and
practical guides than can inform planning, including:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools
    people may have heard of but not used
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions
  • A page on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ and annotation of ‘texts’

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a fixed-term fellowship to support the initiative.
The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media
for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise
summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate,
and attend virtual team meetings. They will be encouraged to write a blog post for the History UK
website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be required to assist
in the organisation of an online ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ roundtable.

The fellow will be expected to work flexibly for 50 hours in total over four weeks, starting on
Wednesday 17 June, or soon after. All work needs to be completed by Wednesday 15 July. The
renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £750.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related subject, based at a higher
    education institution in the UK
  • Strong research skills
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision
  • Excellent organisation, project management skills, and attention to detail
  • Expertise and interest in pedagogy (preferable)
  • Experience of writing for the web (preferable)

To apply:

Send a CV of up to two pages and a one-page cover letter to pandemicpedagogy2020@gmail.com.
In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person
specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Thursday 11 June at 2pm.

Applications will be reviewed by the team working on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative:
www.history-uk.ac.uk/2020/06/03/history-uks-pandemic-pedagogy-initiative-starts-today and the
successful candidate notified by the end of Monday 15 June.

History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy initiative – starts today!

Over the past few weeks members of the HUK Steering Committee, coordinated by Prof. Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) have been putting together a project to support historians as we move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for the next semester/ term. Following our Steering Committee meeting in early June, we ran a survey of members’ views. This has helped us form a working group to generate some useful resources and to run (online) events. We are keen to reflect on the ‘emergency’ phase of teaching and learning and to share best practice through collaborative problem-solving.

To that end, we’ve divided our ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ activities into two broad strands:

  • Lucinda Matthews-Jones (LJMU), Yolana Pringle (Roehampton) and Manuela Williams (Sitrling) are developing the strand on inclusivity and community-building.
  • Kristen Brill (Keele), Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway) and Jamie Wood (Lincoln)are working on our second strand on pedagogy and online tools.

The inclusivity strand will kick off with the first of a series of Twitter chats today (Weds 3rd June) at 11am. Here’s the poster:

Poster for June History UK twitter chat number 1

We hope that you’ll be able to join us.

Alongside this, the pedagogy and technology group aims to produce some pages for the History UK website over the next few weeks, each of which will involve a short summary of the results of our information-gathering on three topics:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools people may have heard of but not used.
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions that move replication of face-to-face teaching (e.g. lectures or seminars).
  • A page focussing specifically on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ (including images and other media) and annotation of ‘texts’.

Our key aim here is to produce short, user-friendly and practical resources (i.e. case studies rather than research papers or theoretical works).

To draw on the knowledge that’s already out there to inform this initiative, we are conducting a survey of historians in HE. Please follow this link to complete it:

We will be sharing the results of our work as soon as possible via the HUK website and/or Twitter account.

Finally, if any historians are interested in joining our group to help out with this initiative, then please do get in touch with any of us directly.

 

Kristen Brill (Keele)

Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway – @kateantiquity)

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores – @luciejones)

Yolana Pringle (Roehampton – @y_pringle)

Manuela Williams (Strathclyde – @ManuelaAWill)

Jamie Wood (Lincoln – @woodjamie99)